A blog about teaching history at Dickinson College

Category: Comparative History

Julie deGraffenried, Teaching Childhood in High School

Integrating Childhood, Children’s, and Youth History into High School History Courses

For three years after graduation from college, I taught social studies – all of them – in a small high school in rural Texas. I remember feeling alternately overwhelmed by (“how can I cover all of this?”) and constrained by (“why can’t I teach this?”) state-mandated learning objectives. Though I now teach at the university level, I am married to a high school teacher who reminds me, especially in the spring, how much pressure there is for secondary educators to “teach the test” so that their students will perform well on state exams.

All of this is to say: I feel your pain. I have no desire to add to your burden, high school teachers of America & the World. When I ask you to consider integrating childhood, children’s and youth history into your classes, I do so in the hopes that it will be an effective way to both cover those required objectives AND get your students excited about history. While I will mention sources from Russia that you can use in American history or world history, what I’m suggesting here can be applied to all kinds of sources on childhood around the world. I’m not proposing a rewrite of your existing curriculum, just some tweaking; speaking as a university educator, I would be really happy to know that incoming students had been introduced to the idea of children’s history.

Since most states require educators to use a “variety of rich primary and secondary source material,”[1] I’ll begin by suggesting a simple way to introduce this topic to your students: find art, photographs, artifacts, or documents about or created by children that relate to a unit or lesson you already cover. If you have lesson on the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, add this contemporary artwork by Lithuanian children about the gulag in conjunction with the lesson plan offered at the Gulag History site. This allows you to talk briefly about children in the gulag and children of gulag survivors, how memory/history is taught, and the fall of communism. Using visuals in your classroom activities not only helps develop primary source analysis, but also introduces the arts and media. A discussion of totalitarianism or the Cold War could utilize the Soviet poster and brief descriptor here.

The Children and Youth in History site, created by George Mason University and University of Missouri-Kansas City, is an excellent resource for students and teachers. It includes single- lesson plans called Case Studies that are written by educators and include a step-by-step guide for using a particular document or image with secondary students. For example, one of these case studies is based on the Thälmann Pioneers of East Germany. Additionally, there are fifteen Teaching Modules that provide an overview of larger topics such as “Childhood in the Slave Trade” or “Children during the Black Death,” a number of resources, teaching strategies, lesson plans, and a document-based question.

The beauty of this topic is that it can fit a variety of historical events, especially for the modern period. A study of industrialization can include child labor testimonies from Great Britain, Marx on child labor and education, and an excerpt from Boris Gorshkov’s Factory Children. A study of the Cold War could compare American and Soviet cartoons about the enemy. Any required social studies skills can be emphasized when considering images or documents by or about children.

A couple of new books are particularly well-suited to use in secondary history classes. Eugene Yelchin’s Newbery Honor Book on the Stalinist Terror, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, is a gripping read. The book has an attractive and accessible (though not particularly deep) discussion of Soviet life referenced in the book at http://www.eugeneyelchinbooks.com/breakingstalinsnose/index.php to help students understand the story better. Advanced students might compare Yelchin’s book to Lydia Chukovskaia’s novella Sofia Petrovna (the Terror through the eyes of a mother) to discuss Soviet society and politics from two perspectives. Another notable book is Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia. The author recalls her childhood as a Polish deportee in the Soviet Union during World War II. She conveys a sense of what life was like in the USSR during the war.

My appeal to you to incorporate childhood into your history courses is threefold: 1.) Pedagogues tell us that students need “hooks” in order to connect new information with something they already know. Children’s history has an advantage here because your students will feel that “childhood” is familiar territory, even if you are talking about children or childhood in another time or place; 2.) You can hit multiple learning objectives by discussing childhood without adding burdensome work to your full plate; and 3.) your students will respond to these sources, which will help them enjoy history more than they think they do!

[1] I am in the state of Texas, so I am referencing Chapter 113 of the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for Social Studies, Subsection C., available at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter113/ch113c.html.

Jacqueline Olich, Part II: Resources for American and Soviet Childhood


Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, "1919" (1934)

For much of the twentieth century, the United States and the Soviet Union were superpowers engaged in a struggle against one another in which children were held up as symbols of each state’s successes and failures.  Aspects of my comparative approach could be applied to a Cold War course or unit, a World Since 1945 survey, or even an Advanced Placement European, World or U.S. History setting.


To introduce students—perhaps in a historical methods context—to the history of childhood, direct them to read and discuss the following underpinnings of the field:

  • Philippe Aries, “Education and the Concept of Childhood,” in Childhood in America, pp. 283-285.
  • Claudia Castaneda, Introduction to Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds (2002)
  • Stephanie Coontz, “In Search of a Golden Age
  • Hugh Cunningham, “Histories of Childhood,” The American Historical Review 103:4 (October 1998): 1195-1208.
  • Paula Fass and Mary Ann Mason, Introduction to Childhood in America (2000), pp. 1-7.
  • Mary Jo Maynes, “Age as a Category of Historical Analysis: History, Agency, and Narratives of Childhood,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1:1 (2008): 114-124.
  • Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft, Preface
  • Steven Mintz, “Reflections on Age as a Category of Historical Analysis,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1,1 (2008): 91-94.
  • Steven Mintz, “Why The History of Childhood Matters,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 5:1 (Winter 2012): 15-28.
  • Leslie Paris, “Through the Looking Glass: Age, Stages, and Historical Analysis,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1,1 (2008): 106-113.
  • Larry Wolff, “Then I Imagine a Child: The Idea of Childhood and the Philosophy of Memory in the Enlightenment,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 31:4: 377-401

A military history unit could integrate child soldier memoirs or scholarly studies of children and war.  Here, I recommend the following:

  • Children and War: A Historical Anthology. Edited by James Marten. New York: NYU Press, 2002.

Employ these two readings in dialogue with each other to get students thinking about how children in the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. endured World War II:

  • Lisa Kirschenbaum, “Innocent Victims and Heroic Defenders: Children and the Siege of Leningrad”, Children and War, pp. 279-290.
  • Robert William Kirk, “American Children in the Second World War,” in Childhood in America, pp. 269-271.

Prepare film studies with the following reading:

  • Alexander Prokhorov, “Arresting Development: A Brief History of Soviet Cinema for Children and Adolescents, in Russian Children’s Literature and Culture, pp. 129-148.

In reconstructing children’s experiences, historians tap a wide range of sources.  Share images of childhood in the Soviet Union with your students.  Frank Whitson Fetter’s photographs of daily life in the Soviet provinces represent an untapped resource to scholars working on a variety of topics, including Russian visual culture, the history of Soviet childhood and everyday life, as well as Russian-American cultural relations in the twentieth-century.

A student interested in researching the history of public health could be directed to Child Health History on the Web


Have a unit about émigré experiences?  Inject children and youth into the discussions.  Consider utilizing Jessica Clark, “Treasured Memories: Growing Up German-Russian on the Northern Plains,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 5:2 (Spring 2012): 260-238.

Introduce students to school settings and the diversity of experiences in Russia and the U.S.S.R. through these sources:

Consider pairing these two readings to get your students thinking and talking about childhood spaces, past and present:

  • Rebecca Friedman, “Masculinity, the Body, and Coming of Age in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Cadet Corps,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 5:2 (Spring 2012): 219-238.
  • Where Children Sleep

If students are interested in children’s literature, direct them to this virtual exhibition: Children’s Books of the Early Soviet Era

Use the following to spark conversations about youth, generations and historical change or, alternately, the Cold War.




  • E. Thomas Ewing, Separate Schools: Gender, Policy, and
  • Practice in Postwar Soviet Education (2010)
  • Paula Fass and Mary Ann Mason, Childhood in America
  • Boris Gorshkov, Russia’s Factory Children, Society, and the State: Childhood, Apprenticeship and Law, 1800-1917
  • Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (2007)
  • Lisa Kirshenbaum, Small Comrades: Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932
  • Olga Kucherenko, Little Soldiers: How Soviet Children Went to War, 1941-45 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • Mary Jo Maynes, Birgitte Soland, and Christina Beninghaus, eds., Secret Gardens, Satanic Mills: Placing Girls in European History, 1750-1960
  • Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (2004)
  • Jacqueline Olich, Competing Ideologies and Children’s Literature in Russia, 1918-1935



Red Feather: An International Journal of Children’s Visual Culture

The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (JHCY) is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal focused on the history of childhood and youth cultures and the experiences of young people across diverse times and places.


Society for the History of Children and Youth (SHCY) serves as a hub for both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research

Children and Youth in History includes primary sources, case studies and teaching modules.

The Working Group on Russian Children’s Literature and Culture is a scholarly non-profit organization dedicated to fostering closer communication among scholars interested in Russian children’s literature, history of childhood, theater, cinema, popular media, education, and other aspects of children’s culture.


H-Childhood is an edited electronic network focused on the history of childhood and youth.

The Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers-Camden’s Exploring_childhood_studies, an online mailing list which serves as a clearinghouse for the exchange of information, resources, and knowledge among academics and practitioners who work in the field of childhood studies.

Childhoods-net-l mailing list childhoods-net-l@uleth.ca

Jacqueline Olich: Why Teach Childhood? Part I


"Street Scene" (1930) Frank Whitson Fetter Papers, Duke University

Everyone has a childhood.  Therefore, the history of childhood is accessible to students of history and intrinsically compelling.  It creates spaces for students to question implicit assumptions about both history and childhood. More history courses, I argue, should include a reading or project relating its contents to the burgeoning field of childhood studies. While the history of childhood is a young field (pun intended), it is a dynamic and growing one.  Inspired by discussions with Karl Qualls, Julie deGraffenried and other participants in the recent Russian Children’s History Workshop about the field of childhood studies, here I will share what I have done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Part I) and suggest some ideas and resources (Part II).

Part I: Case Study: RUES 699 Kids, Communists and Capitalists: Twentieth-century Childhood in Comparative Perspective

It would be hard to imagine a subject more difficult to teach—or more rewarding—than the history of childhood.  Truly interdisciplinary, the history of childhood must necessarily draw upon anthropology, art history, biology, demography, developmental psychology, law, literature, philosophy, and sociology, among other disciplines.  Unlike courses that can be organized in a purely chronological fashion, the history of childhood’s multidisciplinary character means that courses must combine chronology with topical approaches–including such topics children’s culture, diversity and inequality, children and war, friendship and peer relationships, and biological realities and cultural variation– and ongoing debates, such as how much childhood has changed over time and how extensively children’s developmental stages have varied.

Steven Mintz, “Teaching the History of Childhood

I not only accept Steven Mintz’s challenge, but add an additional layer: I teach the comparative history of childhood.  “Over the course of the twentieth century,” I write, “Russian children—like their American counterparts—grappled with far-reaching changes, with each decade or era characterized by diverse childhood experiences. Russia’s children played, attended school, ate sweets, acted in plays, and learned to ballroom dance. But, for many of them, the twentieth century was an extraordinarily brutal one. Like adults, children faced family disruption, starvation, arrest, disease, and death.”[1] By offering a unique side-by-side consideration of Soviet and American childhood and children’s culture over the “long twentieth century,” my course examines how adults sought to control children’s lives (this theme resonates with students) as well as how children experienced historic and quotidian moments.

 Ultimately, I seek to make the familiar (for most of my students, childhood in America) strange and the strange (the history of Russian childhood) familiar.  Students enrolled in my seminar engage in a comparative and interdisciplinary dialogue about children and youth.  Together, we study children in the context of historic upheavals–the Great Depression, the Gulag, and the Great Patriotic War or World War II.  We explore coming of age on the two sides of the Cold War; the centrality of school in children’s lives; the growth of consumerism and material culture in the second half of the twentieth century; state and market efforts to shape children’s leisure activities; and inequality and the diversity of minority experiences.

Here are some of the “big questions” that we consider: What was it like to grow up in the Soviet Union?  Was it intrinsically different from growing up in the United States?  In what ways do geography, class, gender and historical era shape childhood?  Who gets to define childhood?  What counts as a “good” or normal childhood?  How did the understanding and experience of childhood shift from decade to decade?

So who takes this course?  Given its institutional home in the Curriculum in Russian and East European Studies and my affiliation with the Department of History, once would expect graduate and undergraduate students affiliated with the Curriculum in Russian and East European Studies, Department of History, and Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures to enroll and they do.  In addition, students from the following campus units also took the course: Curriculum in Global Studies; Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense; the Department of Public Policy; Gillings School of Global Public Health; and the School of Education, including the School Administration program.  One student, a native of Russia who emigrated at an early age, expressed a desire to “better understand her parents and grandparents.”  The diverse backgrounds of the students not only makes for lively class discussions; it also attests to the broad interest in and appeal for interdisciplinary studies of childhood and the history of childhood.

My course strives to prepare global citizens who are adept at thinking in a comparative framework.  Importantly, students cultivate an understanding of young people’s complicated roles and relationships in the development of modern societies and cultures as they gain familiarity with some of the scholarly research and writing on children and childhood.

[1] Jacqueline Olich, “The Russianists Love Their Children, Too,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and YouthVolume 1, Number 3, Fall 2008 
pp. 445.

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